Highs and Lows in the Local Surfing Industry Amid Pandemic

Zuma Jay’s Surf Shop

Back in October, ABC/7-TV ran a report entitled “Malibu surfing industry sees boom during pandemic.”  We decided to follow up by talking to local surf businesses ourselves and see if we came to the same conclusion—is there a “boom” in surfing?

Of about 15 surf businesses in Malibu, 10 have brick-and-mortar storefront locations with some combination of selling or renting surfboards, wetsuits, clothing and surf accessories; some also offer surf lessons. Those without storefronts are primarily doing lessons and/or rentals.

The business profiled in the  ABC/7 story, Trancas Country Market’s Drill Surf & Skate is, in fact, booming.  Owner Craig Clunies credits a lot of his business increase to the fact that families from outside the LA area—anywhere from Texas to the Bay Area—have been renting beach houses in Malibu during the pandemic, and want to learn surfing. That usually means new business in terms of lessons and equipment sales, and then word-of-mouth travels to their friends. Since children and teens have been attending online classes for school, many families have been taking advantage of the mobility.

Clunies has also seen an increase in his store’s online sales during the pandemic.

“Our online business has definitely improved—there’s a lot of repeat business from people who have visited Malibu before, and we’re sending things all over the U.S.,” Clunies said, adding, “They say even though they may not be coming to Malibu this year, they still want to buy something.”

The overall surf business at Drill Surf is still elevated, even though winter is traditionally the slow season for most surf businesses.

“A lot of people who just learned to surf last summer are continuing through the winter, and they now want to buy warmer wetsuits, and the number of lessons has also carried right through the winter,” Clunies said. “The numbers are up. I’m up over January and February of last year.”

Meanwhile, Radfish Malibu, a surf shop at Zuma Beach Plaza, which is also a full-service surf business, is not seeing the kind of sales increases. Owner Tony Stearns, who’s been living in Malibu since the age of six and makes surfboards, said his income has been down ever since the Woolsey Fire burned down so many of his customer’s houses.

And Stearns has some of the same problems as many other small businesses: customers are now buying more of their surf equipment online or from large chains that can offer better prices.

“I’m paying Malibu rent, so I can’t compete with Target, but I do the best surf lessons and my service is better than anybody else’s,” he said.

It was a real blow to his business when the county closed the beaches during the pandemic last year, during the high summer season.

“I’m just surviving,” Stearns said. “I was five months behind on the rent, but I’ve caught up now. It’s hard to be a sole proprietor.”

The east side of Malibu appears to be experiencing some of the same difficulties in operating a surf business. At the Zuma Jay’s surf shop near the iconic Malibu Pier, owner Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner said, “I’m being really frank with people when I say we broke even last year, and right now our numbers are the same as last year, so far.”

Despite being the oldest continuously owned surf shop in Malibu (since 1975) and reportedly having the largest inventory in town, it’s been a tough go—with hopes that things will improve this year as the pandemic wanes and the weather gets warmer.

On a brighter note, more and more of Malibu’s own young people have been learning to surf as members of the Malibu Sharks Surf Team. The team is a nonprofit organization affiliated with Malibu Middle School and High School, making it possible for students to receive physical education credit for surfing.

Volunteer coach John Cross cited exponential growth in the program since he took over about four years ago. He started out with 22 student members the first year, went to 46 kids the second year, 86 the third year and 115 kids for the current year. About 75 percent of the enrollment is from Malibu itself, and 25 percent from nearby cities.

“I attribute it all to my strategy of letting the kids go at their own pace,” Cross said. Although attendance was down somewhat during the height of the pandemic, it’s now coming back strong. To join, students pay a membership fee and must have their own surfboard and wetsuit.